Laverne Cox, transgender actor in the Netflix hit series Orange is the New Black, spoke to a full house at the Bright Family Screening Room on November 4 as part of Emerson’s first Transgender Awareness Week, titled “The Authentic Me.”
“You’re the leaders of the future. You’re the potential policymakers and employers,” Cox told student journalists before the event. “That’s what gets me excited about talking to students.”
Cox, who met with several transgender students in a reception before her lecture, cited high homicide statistics for the LGBT community as one reason she speaks to colleges across the nation about transgender issues.
“I was kicked on the street once… when someone realized I was trans,” she said. “Not fun. Dealing with it is hard. Especially as a kid growing up, being harassed and bullied, and not really having a strong sense of myself.”
Cox is grateful for her high-profile role on Orange is the New Black, which she called “groundbreaking on so many different levels.”
“When we actually have a real trans person [on screen],” she said, “there’s a whole population of trans folks out there who can begin to see themselves and can begin to imagine the possibilities. [Sophia] is really a multi-dimensional character who the audience can empathize with.”
Cox would generally like to see more trans actors playing trans characters, as well as roles that were not necessarily written for trans actors.
“I just want more of us on television,” she said, “and I’ve always believed the more representation you have, the bigger picture [there is] of who people are.”
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Cox dealt with bullies at school, and pressure from her mother and the church to conform to gender norms.
“[One night,] I went to the medicine cabinet and took a bottle of pills and swallowed all of them and I went to sleep hoping that I wouldn’t wake up the next day,” Cox told students during her lecture.
Cox did wake up, and soon had a new motivation. She became vice president of her class council in seventh grade, won a public speaking contest in eighth grade, and scored a scholarship to an arts high school.
It wasn’t until she went to Marymount Manhattan College in New York that she met people who celebrated her non-conformity—and other transgender women.
“I met these women with goals and who were smart and generous and sweet,” Cox said. “All these ideas I had about trans people just melted away. It’s so powerful to get to know people as people.”
Cox said acting was a form of healing for her. Her well-known acting coach (and Emerson alumna) Susan Batson ’64 served as a strong support in Cox’s life. “She instilled in me what it takes to really be an actor,” she said, “the commitment that is required and the power that this medium can have.”
In addition to Orange is the New Black, Cox has appeared on Law & Order and also became the first African-American transgender person to star in and produce her own television series, TRANSform Me.
Other events taking place as part of Emerson’s Transgender Awareness Week include a stand-up comedy performance by transgender comedian Jeffrey Jay on Tuesday, November 5, at 7:00 pm in the Multipurpose Room of the Max Mutchnick Campus Center; a faculty and staff event on transgender inclusion on Wednesday, November 6, at 12:00 pm in the Multipurpose Room; a workshop discussion on ending workplace discrimination on Wednesday, November 6, at 6:00 pm in the Multipurpose Room; and a screening of the video project I Am: Trans People Speak with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition on Thursday, November 7, at 7:00 pm in the Bright Family Screening Room of the Paramount Center.
The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and GLBTQ Resources and several other campus organizations hosted the Cox lecture, including Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone (EAGLE); Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI); Communication, Politics, and Law Association (CPLA); Office of Career Services; Department of Performing Arts; Office of Student Life; Dean of Students; and the Office of the President.